Building Relationships with Offices on Campus

December 2013

This month’s question is answered by Mary Ann Coughlin, Assistant Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Springfield College (Massachusetts) and AIR Past-President (2007-2008). The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR.

Dear Mary Ann: How do you engage with other offices on campus to build relationships and friendships?

This question is simple, yet complex! On the simple side, I refer to Robert Fulghum’s rules to live by as shared in his classic book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Some of my favorites that relate to this question include:   

Clean up your own mess;
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you;
Play fair; and
Don't hit people. 

In retrospect, life in kindergarten may have seemed simple, but the application of these rules to higher education is definitely complex. Let’s dig deeper! 

Clean up your own mess. Often, IR offices make messes across campus. Let’s think of the countless times we need to gather data for external surveys, such as IPEDS and U.S. News. We send requests for data to people across campus and stress the importance of timeliness in their responses. Yet we don’t often think about other offices when we set our schedules. What are their busy times? When or how could we make it more convenient for them to assist us? What can we do to make it easier for them to provide us with information we need? Thus, I say to you, clean up your own mess or prevent other messes from occurring. Where feasible, help other offices to effectively provide you with the information you need. Give them tools and resources to make the data collection process simple and straightforward. 

Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. After colleagues have helped you effectively complete your task, don’t forget to reward them. When we teach the IPEDS New Keyholder Workshop, Trainers share our most interesting and effective ways of thanking people for their assistance. One Trainer shared a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, and of course I offer M&Ms. Simple thank you email messages are often more appreciated than you realize, especially when copied to individuals’ supervisors.  

Play fair. This means many different things in a higher education setting. It is a rule that I truly try to live by! From an IR perspective, and with the goal of building solid relationships with other offices on campus, I stress the importance of respecting others. Many institutional researchers think that we have all of the information we need—after all, we have access to the data. A common flaw in this logic is that the institutional researcher may not know the context surrounding the data. After all, “data don’t speak to strangers!” Play fair, know your limitations, and most importantly, respect the expertise and skill sets of your colleagues. I readily admit my limitations in understanding finance and financial aid data. It would be very easy for me to assume that I can handle this, after all these are just numbers with dollar signs! Yet, the nuances of financial aid eligibility and packaging are well beyond my field of expertise and definitely have an impact on interpretation of reports and analyses. Thus, building strong relationships means that I need to value and support my colleagues’ expertise. 

Also, playing fair implies maintaining and protecting one’s reputation on campus. The best way to build good relationships is to have a good reputation. Institutional researchers need to have reputations beyond reproach, and IR offices should be known for getting things done! If we expect people to work with us, we want them to understand that our work is important and that the work we do matters. Thus, we need to be responsive to and supportive of other offices and produce quality products that are used on campus.  

Finally, playing fair implies being a good communicator. In this era of instant communication, this is a lost art. I spend too much time trying to decipher brief, poorly written emails. If we are going to play fair with others, we need to take pride in how we communicate with them.  

Don’t hit people. This relates to the Golden Rule: do unto others what you wish to have done to you. Even in my wildest moments when I feverishly type scathing email messages, I always save them as drafts. Take time to re-read a message you write when passionate or upset; if you still feel the same way when you come back to that message, pick up the phone and call the individual instead. Many of us communicate better when we don’t hide behind our keyboards.  

And this leads me to my final piece of advice. You can’t build good relationships with other offices if people only know you by your email signature. Get out of your office. Establishing relationships is better done face-to-face. Take time to invite colleagues to coffee or lunch. You can get a lot of work done in what appears to be a social setting!  

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